Sundials: telling the time in medieval Ireland

Early medieval sundial at Kilmalkedar Co. Kerry
Early medieval sundial at Kilmalkedar, Co. Kerry (© Irish Heritage News).

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We explore the methods for measuring time in medieval Ireland through an examination of the Irish corpus of stone sundials.

Before the general introduction of mechanized clocks, the requirements of daily life and the necessity of differentiating the times for the daily rituals of the Church led to the production of sundials at important places where the skills and knowledge to create such monuments had developed. Approximately 30 medieval stone sundials have been recorded in Ireland (listed in full below).

Early medieval sundials

A relatively rare monument type in early medieval Ireland, only about a dozen sundials can be dated to this period which spans the 5th–12th centuries. Early medieval sundials from Ireland and Wales were typically tall freestanding monuments, unlike Anglo-Saxon sundials that were generally small circular, square or semicircular-headed stones frequently built into church walls. The early Irish examples usually comprise a large rectangular slab or pillar-stone, often with an expanded semicircular head or carved with a semicircular arc. The semicircular portion is the dial and in the centre is a hole usually penetrated all the way through the stone. The hole was designed to hold the gnomon – a wooden or metal projecting pin – which would cast a shadow on the face of the sundial; unfortunately, the gnomons have not survived.

The face of each dial is calibrated using a varied number of incised radial lines (“rays”) that extend from the hole. Most of the monuments, when complete, measure between about 1.2m–2m (4ft–6.5ft) in height and when initially erected, the dials were probably near eye level.

Early medieval sundial from Iniscealtra
Early medieval sundial from Iniscealtra, Co. Clare, now in storage in an OPW depot in Athenry, Co. Galway (credit: drawing by George V. du Noyer, published posthumously in Way, 1868, ‘Ancient sun-dials: especially certain Irish examples of ecclesiastical use’, The Archaeological Journal).

The number of radial lines carved on the dial differs from one monument to the next. But among the small corpus of early medieval Irish sundials and the larger Anglo-Saxon corpus, the most common division of the dial is into four segments defined by five lines. Examples of sundials with five radial lines can be found at Iniscealtra (Clare), Kilmalkedar (Kerry), Monasterboice (Louth), Ballinlena and Kilcummin (both in Mayo). These monuments are sometimes called “tide dials” with the four segments of the dial denoting four “tides” or roughly three-hour time periods, though the length would vary according to the time of year.

The five lines from left to right represent the canonical hours of Prime (6am), Terce (9am), Sext (12pm), Nones (3pm) and Vespers (6pm); a presumed complementary division of nighttime into four parts represents the octaval division of the day. This was the prevalent system before the 11th or 12th century for marking the times at which prayers would be recited. Such dials thus operate on the basis of a 12-hour daytime block from 6am to 6pm with the central vertical line always corresponding to noon.

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Notably the incised radial lines on early sundials are often elaborated with stirrup-shaped terminals or double/triple-forked terminals; the points at which the terminals touch the semicircular arc could correspond to additional subdivisions of time. Moreover, while the division of the dial into four parts is most common amongst the early medieval sundials, those found in Co. Down have intermediate rays offering further subdivision of the day.

In an age before clocks, these primitive devices were essential as a way to determine the correct time for prescribed services and rituals, and clearly highlight the importance of the regularized monastic and clerical routines. Not surprisingly then, the vast majority of medieval sundials have been found at church sites. On these sites, hand‐bells would have been used in conjunction with the sundial to signal the times of prayer. From the 11th and 12th centuries, bells were rung from the top of round towers at major ecclesiastical centres, so that not only the immediate community but even those in the greater area would have been alerted to prayer times.

Of course the sun did not always shine in medieval Ireland and so sundials could not be depended upon entirely, and the accuracy of some of the dials has been drawn into question by experts in the past.

Early medieval sundial at Mainistir Chiaráin on Inishmore
Early medieval sundial at Mainistir Chiaráin, on Inishmore, Co. Galway, c.1913 (credit: Henry S. Crawford, ‘A descriptive list of early cross-slabs and pillars’, Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland).

The composition of the incised dial on the stone pillar at Mainistir Chiaráin (image above), on Inishmore of the Aran Islands, is most interesting. It comprises a double-outline circle with two parallel lines cutting it in half vertically and the gnomon hole is positioned just above the outer circle. In this manner, the double-incised diameter marks the position of noon. The absence of other lines within this dial is intriguing, but perhaps additional lines were applied in paint, much in the same way that Ireland’s high crosses were likely painted in bright colours.

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Some of the early sundials, including this monument on Inishmore, carry cross-carvings and fret or geometrical motifs. But it is the sundial from Clogher (see image below), Co. Tyrone, that is most remarkable in regards to its ornamentation and form. It is highly decorated with interlace patterns on both broad faces and bears a carving of a fish possibly symbolic of Christ. However, it is its anthropomorphic (human-like) appearance that sets this sundial apart: the damaged carving of a human head, in relief, projects from the top of the monument on the reverse side of the dial. This figure is sometimes interpreted as the crucified Christ or as Clogher’s founding saint. The founder of this church site is traditionally believed to be St Mac Caorthainn (anglicized Macartan), a contemporary of St Patrick.

Early medieval sundial at Clogher
Early medieval sundial at Clogher, Co. Tyrone, c.1960 (credit: Helen M. Roe, ‘A stone cross at Clogher, Co. Tyrone’, Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland).

Among scholars this sundial is regularly regarded as one of the earliest in Ireland, with dates centring on the 7th to 10th centuries. It was removed from the graveyard and is now on display in the Church of Ireland cathedral at Clogher.

Late medieval sundials

By the late medieval period, c.1200–1550, Irish sundials had generally become smaller and more portable, and some are architectural features. Oftentimes these were more crudely carved than their early medieval counterparts.

One such example is the dial scratched into the wall of the 13th-century church at Cloghane, on the Dingle peninsula in Co. Kerry. Scratch dials and mass dials were more common, however, in late medieval England where they were typically incorporated into the exterior south walls of churches and were used to tell the time of church services.

Late medieval sundial at Iniscealtra
Late medieval sundial from Iniscealtra, Co. Clare, now lost (credit: R.A.S Macalister, 1916–17, ‘The history and antiquities of Inis Cealtra’, Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy).

By the late medieval period, the dials had become more complex with further subdivisions of time. Fully calibrated dials with 24 gradations arranged in a circle have been recorded at Iniscealtra (Clare), Nendrum (Down), Bremore (Dublin), Askeaton (Limerick), Muckross (Kerry), Donaghpatrick and Kells (both in Meath). Most of these monuments date to after the Norman conquest and before the 15th century. Circular dials had the advantage that they could be used in either an upright or recumbent position.

The 24 gradations on the now lost late medieval sundial from Iniscealtra (image above), Co. Clare, are unevenly spaced and were originally made up of 19 short incised strokes – but two were removed by damage to the stone’s surface – and five longer radial lines, set in a circle around a gnomon hole that does not penetrate all the way through the stone. The horizontal lines equating to Prime and Vespers terminate in crosslets. Elaborate crosslet terminals are also a feature of the sundial at Kells (see image below), Co. Meath, and commonly embellish the principal mid-tide lines of Anglo-Saxon sundials.

Late medieval sundial at Kells
Late medieval sundial at Kells, Co. Meath (credit: drawing by George Victor du Noyer, source: Europeana, © Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland).

As in the case of the early medieval sundials, the gnomons of the late medieval dials have not survived down to the present day. However, in the mid-19th century Dublin-born antiquarian and artist George du Noyer noted that at Kells a portion of the “original iron gnomon remains affixed by lead in the centre of the circle” of the sundial.

Other uses

Some of the sundials may have accrued other functions and meanings over time. For instance, in 1878 a fisherman informed the antiquarian TJ Westropp that cloths were passed through the hole of the sundial at Mainistir Chiaráin in the belief that it would affect a cure for sore limbs.

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In relation to the sundial at Kilmalkedar, Co. Kerry, Margaret Gatty (1809–73) wrote that,

“In former days, when a priest could not be had, it was a common practice amongst the Irish for the bride and bridegroom to put each a finger in the hole, and pledge themselves in the presence of witnesses. This engagement held good till a priest was procured to solemnize the marriage … One might suggest that the gnomon hole was turned to this use after the disappearance of the gnomon.”

However, this sundial’s gnomon hole does not pierce all the way through the stone and it is commonly believed locally that Mrs Alfred Gatty (as she is better known) was referring to customs associated with the ogham stone on the site, which bears a hole that penetrates all the way through. In spite of this, it has been argued that Irish sundials with fully perforated holes may well have been used for oath-swearing and pledging promises, much in the same way as other holed stones were used.

Kilmalkedar sundial
Early medieval sundial at Kilmalkedar, Co. Kerry (credit: drawing by George V. du Noyer, published posthumously in Way, 1868, ‘Ancient sun-dials: especially certain Irish examples of ecclesiastical use’, The Archaeological Journal).

Documentary evidence indicates that the Kilmalkedar sundial previously operated as a headstone marking a modern grave and was moved at least once before reaching its present location on the western edge of the church site.

Where are they?

As already mentioned most sundials have been recorded at church sites, usually in the attached cemeteries. The location at which a sundial was positioned was no doubt carefully chosen with the dual differentiation of time and space serving to distinguish the sacred church sites from their surrounding landscapes.

However, most of the sundials are no longer in their original positions. In the case of the early medieval sundial at Nendrum (see image below), excavation in the 1920s revealed an almost complete base – in which the sundial would have been set – and several fragments of the sundial in the area to the south of the western gable of the church, indicating that it probably once stood here. The sundial has since been reconstructed, which has drawn much criticism with many experts believing it is time for dismantling and reconsideration.

Reconstructed early medieval sundial at Nendrum
Reconstructed early medieval sundial at Nendrum, Co. Down (credit: © Wilson Adams, via geograph.org.uk, CC BY-SA 2.0).

Sundials have also been recovered from other interesting contexts. A small slate “mass dial” was found in a pit during an excavation near a medieval church which operated as the manorial chapel for the 14th-century Bremore Castle in Balbriggan, Co. Dublin, which was the seat of the Barnewall family. Although damaged, it is clear that it displayed a circular dial with 24 etched lines and roman numerals around the circumference. The associated pottery finds in the pit would seem to suggest that the sundial dates to no later than the 15th century but the backfilling of the pit may relate to later activities.

Ballagh Castle, Co. Laois.
Ballagh Castle, Co. Laois (credit: © Mike Searle, via geograph.ie, CC BY-SA 2.0).

Ballagh Castle at Ballagharahin, Co. Laois, provides another notable backdrop for a series of sundials. Here semicircular dials were carved on ten steps of the spiral staircase of this five-storey tower house, which was built by the Fitzpatricks. Bernard E. B. Fitzpatrick made rubbings of the dials and sent them to the Journal of the Kilkenny and South-East of Ireland Archaeological Society in 1867 explaining,

“I have made as careful a rubbing of the dials as I can, and will try and explain how they are situated. There are ten stairs on which they are cut, and the dials decrease in size from the upper stairs to the lowest one. You will see by the rubbings that they are only semicircles, and that they do not decrease in size with any great regularity. They are situated opposite two windows, one window being placed higher up in the stairs than the other; the stairs are circular. I have numbered the dials in the order they come on each stair; the largest dial, the one placed the highest up on the staircase, being numbered No. I, and so on down to the smallest. I hope this will give you some idea of their position, but it is very hard to do so without having a drawing of the staircase.”

Unfortunately the journal did not print the rubbings and only some of the dials are now visible.

Sundials are associated with the following sites, though some are now missing: Cloonnakilla and two at Iniscealtra, both in Co. Clare; Bangor, Saul and two at Nendrum, all in Co. Down; Bremore (Balbriggan), Co. Dublin; Ballinderry, Moorneen and Mainistir Chiaráin (Eochaill), all in Co. Galway; Ballagh Castle (Ballagharahin), Co. Laois; St Molua’s (Emlygrennan, Balline), Co. Limerick; Monasterboice and Old Mellifont Abbey, both in Co. Louth; Cloghane (An Clochán), An Fearann Iarthach (Farraniaragh), Kilmalkedar (Cill Maoilchéadair), Lomanagh North, Muckross Friary and Skellig Michael, all in Co. Kerry; Ballinlena, Kilcummin (Cill Chomáin) and Pollsharvoge, all in Co. Mayo; Donaghpatrick (Diméin Bhaile Ghib), Kilbeg and Kells (Town Parks), all in Co. Meath; Toureen Peacaun, Co. Tipperary; Clogher, Co. Tyrone; Lismore, Co. Waterford; and Clone, Co. Wexford.

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This list has been compiled from various sources and there is a possibility that some of these sundials are post-medieval in date or later as we have not been able to access all monuments. But certainly the majority predate the 16th century.

Sundials were sometimes marked on historic maps. For example, those at Cloonnakilla, Co. Clare and Ballinderry Bridge and Moorneen, both in Co. Galway, were marked on the 25-inch Ordnance Survey map which was compiled c.1890–1915; these may well be more modern examples but we have not surveyed these sites and have been unable to locate any photographs of these monuments.

Undoubtedly the popularity of sundials increased into the post-medieval period when they become common features in estate gardens, on public buildings and were sometimes carved on graveslabs.

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